- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

The Iraq war pushed the number of journalists killed on the job last year to 36, up sharply from the 19 killed in 2002, according to a report by an organization that monitors international press freedom.

“It was quite a discouraging year,” said Ann Cooper, the director of the Committee to Protect Journalists. But 2003 was considerably better than 1994, the worst in the past decade, when 66 newsmen and women were killed.

The CPJ’s annual report, “Attacks on the Press,” details the state of the press around the world, reporting attacks on individual journalists as well as systematic government interference.

“The most dramatic story in terms of press freedom and journalist security is obviously Iraq,” where 13 journalists were killed in the past year, Mrs. Cooper said. These included four killed by U.S. fire.

Two of those were cameramen killed April 8 when an American tank attacked the Palestine Hotel in central Baghdad, which housed many foreign correspondents.

Besides the obvious dangers posed to journalists by the war in Iraq and the U.S.-led war on terrorism, the two events have given some countries an excuse to restrict independent reporting, the CPJ reported.

“The United States has a huge responsibility,” Mrs. Cooper said, adding that it “is the country that everyone looks to as the beacon of press freedom.”

Karin Karlekar, who tracks press activity for Freedom House, said, “It seems that countries that were already interested in clamping down on the press are using [U.S. actions] as an excuse to do so.”

Referring to post-September 11, 2001, laws such as the Patriot Act, she said the prevailing attitude is, “If the U.S. can pass laws like that, then so can we.”

Morocco, which in past years has exhibited relative tolerance toward a critical press, passed an antiterrorism law in 2003 that resulted in the closing of four newspapers and the detainment or imprisonment of five journalists, the CPJ report said.

Indonesia followed the United States’ lead and embedded reporters with the military during an offensive against separatists in the Aceh province.

Citing what it deemed patriotic coverage by the U.S. press during the Iraq invasion, military officials required journalists to report news “with the spirit of capitalism,” Mrs. Cooper said.

While the world was busy watching the fall of Baghdad, 29 journalists in Cuba were sentenced to between 14 and 27 years in prison. “There was a terrible crackdown in Cuba that happened almost opportunistically by Fidel Castro,” Mrs. Cooper said.

As an advocacy group, CPJ relies on international pressure and public opinion to affect a country’s policy, but those tactics are of little use in politically and economically isolated Cuba.

However, the documentation of Cuba’s press freedom record is not in vain, Mrs. Cooper said.

“It lets journalists know they are not alone,” she said. “Messages do get to prisoners, even in places like Cuba.”

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